Chris Jeter’s Pick
MOTY- Finn Balor vs. Kyle O’Reilly, NXT TakeOver 31:
WWE gives fans (at least the ones who don’t have a tattoo with the company’s name across their chest) plenty of things to criticize them for, be it their unethical business practices or their quotidian struggles to present a compelling television product across their many hours of content.
One of the main gripes about their on-screen presentation rests with the homogenized wrestling format that most of the roster members adhere to. Yes, the collection of top-level talent makes the monotonous format easier to digest, but restricting most of the wrestlers to this rigid “babyface shine-heel heat-comeback” format is a disservice to their in-ring abilities and the art form of the genre as a simulated sport.
NXT, in many ways, purports to be the “alternative” to this repetition; a Sprite to the main roster’s flat Coca-Cola of a product, and nothing better exemplified that than Kyle O’Reilly and Finn Balor’s main event tussle over the NXT Championship at NXT TakeOver 31.
Unlike most matches in WWE, this match felt more like an exhibition of the respective in-ring styles that make O’Reilly and Balor come across as the stars many people believe them to be — Balor’s tactical aggression and O’Reilly’s pristine mat acumen — as opposed to them hitting notable moves while following the same old script (much of that could be attributed to neither occupying traditional babyface nor heel roles going in, though this match firmly established O’Reilly as a clear protagonist by the end).
Watching this match, you got the sense that there were two elite athletes that had strong plan A’s going in (both men worked over the other’s arm to start; O’Reilly to set up his armbar, Balor to inhibit O’Reilly’s offense) and possessed the cunning to move to a secondary course of action if a new opening presented itself (like when Balor targeted O’Reilly’s midsection halfway through the contest) and that vibe carried through until Balor finished the proceedings with a Coup de Grace and a clean pin.
The boom we’ve seen in indy promotions and other companies over the last few years has shown that wrestling doesn’t need to be presented one way in order to be successful and O’Reilly vs. Balor further proved that to be true, even in a company as uniform as WWE.
Honorable Mention- Tetsuya Naito vs. Kazuchika Okada, Wrestle Kingdom 14:
The baseball line score showing two runs being scored in the bottom of the ninth that adorns Tetsuya Naito’s video wall wasn’t just representative of The Ungovernable One’s love for baseball or his chance to leave Wrestle Kingdom 14 with the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental Championships. It also represented what was potentially his final chance to claim the moment he and his many fans have clamored for since his return to New Japan in 2015. And all he had to do to get it was out-wrestle arguably the greatest wrestler of this generation.
This match with Kazuchika Okada basically equaled their efforts from two years prior at Wrestle Kingdom 12, but the added stakes of both titles hanging in the balance and this being possibly Naito’s last go-round in the main event picture (he was 37 at the time and quite banged up physically) made the already pulse-pounding near falls even more cardiac arrest-inducing, including a tremendous near-count out spot after Okada worked over Naito’s injured knee outside the ring at around the 20-minute mark.
The two wisely built this match around Naito fighting underneath early and often, with Okada having an answer for everything Naito tried (the announcers hammered home the point that Naito showed more trepidation than Okada when going for offense), but, eventually, the action picked up and we got the back-and-forth drama that fans come to expect from New Japan main events. This time, however, Naito would come through with the ultimate walkoff win, hitting the Stardust Press (a great callback to WK 12) before finishing the heavyweight champ with Destino for the historic pinfall. Tremendous stuff.